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Articles August,  2006

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Safe shipping--when are you ruining your wines?


In one of the worst hot spells in local history, with three consecutive days predicted to hit 100 degrees, a friend received a wine shipment. I could only cry, "Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?" Why would anyone think of asking for a shipment in such circumstances, or sending one out unasked?  To make matters more complicated, this was simply an extreme example. Someone else I know who declined to ship in this period nonetheless had no fear of requesting shipment in 85 degree weather.  Quick question: if  it is 85 degrees outside, and it sits on a UPS metal truck for three hours baking in the sun before it gets to you, how hot will it be in the truck? You should be looking for a margin of error, not shipping in weather that is already too hot.

The fact that people buying and selling expensive wine can just be oblivious to caring for it properly simply shocks me. In fact, a prominent winery recently sent out order forms advising that the wine would be shipped in the summer. What can they be thinking?

Storage, and proper care for wines in general, is of course one of the biggest problems in wine appreciation. Too many retailers, importers, distributors and even wineries do not seem to care much. Surely this is baffling. You'd certainly think a winery would want its wines to show well, right?  Yet, a $2 carton of milk is shipped lovingly, but a $200 bottle of wine may not be.

Once in the consumer's hands, the wine may not fare any better. Assuming they manage to acquire the wine in good condition, proper care is the most difficult problem that the average consumer faces.  The best wines require cellaring, and any consumer who becomes really interested in wines will want to acquire some of those wines. They will need to be lovingly cellared for years--on occasion, decades. Yet cellaring is a difficult task. It takes a lot of space, to name the most obvious problem.  Plus, cellaring doesn't just imply sticking the wines in the basement or a closet.  People argue over the limits of proper cellaring, but classic storage conditions traditionally recommended are: (a) temperatures in the mid-50s (although constant temperatures at a slightly higher level are not fatal); (b) relatively constant temperature levels; (c) limited light; (d) no vibration; and (e) high humidity. This presents a set of problems that many consumers find insurmountable, and it is a major obstacle to their wine hobby. The simple truth is that if you cannot care properly for your wines, it is hard to dive into wine collecting. (For a good primer on why temperature adversely affects wine, see Dr. Pandell's "How Temperature Affects the Aging of Wine.")

What is particularly peculiar, however, is that even people who have worked all this out--and presumably understand the importance of not damaging their wines--still take unnecessary risks in transporting the wines, per the examples given at the beginning of this article. I don't get why. Sometimes, when you talk to these people, it seems as if they are simply in denial. They want something to happen badly. So, therefore it must be safe. I hear the same from those who have poor cellar conditions--"Well, it's below 70 most of the time, and maybe it swings up to the mid to upper 70s on hot days..."  But there is a difference here. The poor guy with poor cellar conditions has little choice but to go out and spend lots of money to fix it. He should, and he should stop ruining fine wines. But at least for the moment, he has little choice. What excuse is there for shipping your wine in the dead of summer? Why take any chance at all? Did you really have to have it August? Considering that many fine wines may not be ready to drink for years, is there some good reason you couldn't wait until November 1 instead? Why, in other words, take any chance whatsoever? This is something entirely within your control, and easy to regulate.

I sometimes hear people indicate that they shipped the wine in 90 degree heat, opened it up, and all was well. It is possible it can turn out that way, to be sure. In particular, you can get lucky in terms of when the wine arrives, and when it is in transit. You can also get very unlucky. Wines may have seeped under the seal, not visibly. The corks may have lost their seals. The wines may have gotten so hot that they will have a "cooked" or "burnt" flavor. Assuming more subtle damage, even wines that are damaged do not always show poorly immediately unless seriously cooked. They may taste fine 6 weeks later. They may not taste fine 12 years later as defects magnify with time. When people immediately crack a bottle, and say they are fine, I therefore have two questions. First, did you taste it next to an undamaged bottle? That is, do you really know what an undamaged bottle is like? Second, come back in ten years and taste  it next to an undamaged bottle then. Let me know if you still think it's fine. Until you can answer both of those questions, you don't really know. 

I might add that I have personal experience with heat damaged wines. I accidentally, for one example, exposed some 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle to high heat in small time increments. At first, the wine, even though it had visibly leaked, seemed fine. It is a tough, sturdy wine. Over the next couple of years, it actually seemed better than undamaged La Chap for the simple reason that the undamaged bottles had gone into hibernation, and the heat damaged bottle was far more forward and open. I drank the last of my damaged wine about a year ago at age 15, having recently had some undamaged bottles. There was no longer any comparison between the two. Mine was routine and ordinary. The undamaged bottles had blossomed and were brilliant, in the place where they should be. I could also tell you the story of my attempt to store wine in the bedroom with fluctuating temperatures, and what happened fifteen years later to the surviving bottles, but hopefully you've gotten the point.

To be sure, no one can really tell you precisely where the danger points are. It depends on balancing SO many factors. For example:

--what varietal is at issue
--what vintage
--what producer (some make tougher, more ageworthy wines that might be a little more resistant, in case you're wondering why this matters...)
--whether the wine is fortified
--whether intended to be used in the near term or not
--how long the wine is exposed
--how high the heat is
--whether there are temperature swings as well as just higher temps, either of which can cause the cork's seal to fail
--whether the temperature in the delivery truck merely matches the ambient atmosphere; it may be WAY higher

That's a lot of factors to consider and weigh. Here's a simpler solution:  Why take ANY risk? November is always there. There is no need to ship in September, let alone August.  Be smart. Be safe. Give yourself a margin of error. Give your wine at least as much chance as you would give a carton of milk.



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